Jean Genet and the Palestinians of Black September

 

Un captif amoureux (Prisoner of Love)

Par Clare Brandabur  (Fatih University, Istanbul)

 

              

Abstract: Many admirers of Jean Genet’s avant garde drama have until lately been unaware that, years after his last play and dying of throat cancer, he wrote Un captif amoureux (Prisoner of Love;1986). An account of his sojourn in Jordan in 1970 with groups of young Palestinian fedayeen who were training to wrest their homeland back from the Israelis in the months leading up to Black September, Genet himself called it “my Palestinian revolution, told in my own chosen order.” A review of the book in Le Matin when Un captif amoureux was first published in France pronounced that it has “all the sacred fire and poetry of his earlier work” (qtd. in Soueif, introduction ix).

Looked at from the point of view of its autobiographical qualities, Un captif amoureux at its heart is Genet’s discovery of what must have been a life-long quest. He was given up to an orphanage shortly after birth and never experienced a real maternal love. The central autobiographical experience revealed in this book is Genet’s discovery of a mother for himself. In a most unlikely setting, a poor Palestinian shelter in a refugee camp in Irbid, Genet sleeps in the bed of a young fedayee, is served Turkish coffee by the boy’s mother, and feels himself to have been for that moment her son.

What concept of his own special vocation drove him to write this amazing document in the weeks before his death, cutting back on pain medication to maintain his lucidity so determined was he to complete the writing before he died?

 

 

 

 

“Put all the images [. . .] in a place of safety

              and make use of them for they are in the desert, and

                it’s in the desert that we must go and look for them.”

 

                              Epigraph of Jean Genet’s Un captif amoureux

                       

 

Little serious criticism in English has been devoted to Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love (Un captif amoureux [1986]), a book which is highly personal—part journal, part travel narrative, part political commentary. Leila Shahid[1] speaks of the initial response at Gallimard Press when Genet delivered the manuscript: “What is this? An essay? An autobiography? Reporting? A poem?” As we shall see, the answer to this question might have been “all of the above.” Whatever its genre, this has turned out to be an important book: in a paper entitled “The Princes of Exile: Choukri and Genet in Tangier,” presented at a recent conference in Morocco, Andrew Hussey remarked that Prisoner of Love “by general consensus, remains Genet’s most puzzling and politically challenging work” (152).

Now there are several sources in addition to the self-revelatory aspects of the book itself: Ahdaf Soueif’s introduction to the new English edition (2003), Leila Shahid’s essay “Jean Genet and the Position of Sudden Departure” (2001), and a small book by Mohamed Choukri, Genet in Tangier, which was written in French in Morocco and translated to English by Paul Bowles (1973). This rather modest book records a brief and apparently casual acquaintance between Choukri and Jean Genet over a period of several months in 1969 before Genet would have traveled to Jordan in 1970 and documents a number of important features of Genet as he then was. For one thing, when Choukri knew him in Algiers, Genet had no more plans to write.

In Genet in Tangiers, in a passage dated October 3, 1969, Choukri (38-39) asks Genet about his writing, observing that he hadn’t written anything for several years: “Do you consider your literary silence and your assumption of a political position another kind of creation, part of your writing?” Genet answers, “Literally, I’ve said what I had to say. Even if there were anything more to add, I’d keep it to myself.” Indeed, all the plays and most of the poems were behind him. The Genet sketched out in Choukri’s (12) book already has a predilection for the Quran as opposed to Judeo-Christian culture; he is already eating little and taking Nembutal to kill the pain from kidney problems; and he had read little or nothing of Arabic literature. In fact, though the author at this period was willing to talk about Our Lady of the Flowers and to ask Choukri and others what they were reading, he himself was “reading nothing” (Choukri 44). However, when he praised Mallarmé, one of the group went to a book store to bring back Mallarmé’s poems and Genet read “Brise marine” (“Wind from the Sea”), remarking, “Isn’t it a miracle, that poem?” and singled out for special comment a line that particularly pleased him: Et la jeune femme allaitant son enfant” (Choukri 59). Choukri omitted one word from the line: It actually reads, “Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.” So in context it reads literally, “Nor the young mother breast-feeding her baby,” one in a list of the beautiful things like the “ancient gardens pictured in his eyes,” which, in spite of their attraction, will not keep the poet from leaving on a sea-journey, even though the ship’s masts may be struck by lightning, the ship drowned and unmasted, lost forever.

That he should single out this line with its image of the mother nursing a baby for special remark suggests that, at the root of Genet’s rage and iconoclasm, there remained a wound of having been abandoned by his mother, and therefore he went about the rest of his life perhaps unconsciously searching for a lost maternal love. After reading Prisoner of Love, one cannot help being struck that Genet should have singled out a maternal image for attention, because the most important personal revelation in the entire book is Genet’s adoption of a Palestinian fighter and his mother (who also carried a Kalashnikov) as a kind of surrogate family. He places himself in the role of the son for a single night in the refugee camp in Irbid, a touching ritual which he later associates with the Pietà, a theme to which we shall return. His friend Leila Shahid, a leader of the Palestinian resistance and now PLO ambassador to France, says that what first drew Genet into the Palestinian struggle was his fascination with Palestinian women. Genet was attracted, Shahid records, especially to their traditional embroidery. Having first met Genet in the 1970s, Shahid later traveled with him to Beirut, arriving just in time to see the ghastly effects of the massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in 1982. Shahid (2) stresses Genet’s rapport with women:

 

Besides, nobody has ever spoken of women like Genet—women in general but especially women of the third world, poor women. For he understood them wordlessly, there was a complicity between them. He did not speak Arabic, it is true, and they did not speak French. All communication between him and the Palestinian women in the Jordan camps took place via winks.

 

Genet was fascinated, Shahid says, with the embroidery worn by the women the creation of which occupied them by the hour. Traditionally, of course, Palestinian women from different villages and towns wore dresses of distinctive colors which they made from the age of twelve, collecting Syrian silk thread, to adorn the bodices of the dresses they would wear at their weddings. Like many other Palestinian women, Leila Shahid’s mother encouraged and practiced the preservation of this tradition of their culture in exile.

Shahid describes a rather strange episode in Beirut just after she and Genet had arrived in 1982. Her mother had gathered a large collection of Palestinian embroidered dresses and kept them in a trunk in her flat. As Leila and Genet approach the apartment building, they look up and see dozens of these dresses hanging on the balcony of her mother’s flat where a visitor had hung them out to air:

And Jean says, “Leila, look!” And we see all those dresses hanging on the balcony. We go tearing down the avenue and climb nine floors shouting, “Get the dresses in! Get the dresses in!” The Israeli army was in town and Palestinian dresses were hanging on the balcony. [. . .] these dresses were like flags, and were the Israeli intelligence agents in their cars to see all those dresses hanging there, it would be as if we were flying Palestinian flags.

This episode, Shahid says, quite amused Jean, and he saw in these works of art a form of expression more subtle than the verbal political discourse: “embroidery was a discourse too—everything that can be said about our relation to the land, identity, memory, but it was not channeled through the obvious words but through subtle signs, colors, an aesthetic symbolism.” She continues,

It was in fact the gesture in embroidering that most fascinated Jean. When one puts the needle through the fabric, one traces a circle. As for me, I was always saying apropos of his life: it’s come full circle. Jean’s life [. . .] begins somewhere with public assistance, passes through rebellion and prison, goes toward the East when he is a soldier [Genet served in Syria in the French Foreign Legion as a very young man], returns towards the East with the Palestinians, and ends in front of the corpses he finds at his feet in Chatila. (3)

Shahid (3) goes so far as to suggest that the patterns of the embroidery and the process of its creation served as a model for the shape of Genet’s last book:

It’s also what Un captif amoureux is all about. The weaving of his life. [. . .]

This idea that embroidery inspired the structure of this text is very beautiful, and I do believe the book was poorly received because people did not understand it.

It is at this point in her story that Shahid remarks, as we have already quoted above, what happened when Genet delivered the manuscript to Gallimard: the editors did not know what to make of this multi-genred or “hybrid” text. And his reply indicates that he was fully aware of the formal dissonance of the book: “Jean called it ‘the bit of disorder in the order.’”

Shahid continues,

And since they could not find a definition to paste on this text, they said, ‘It’s not important. It’s not interesting, He’s getting senile. This is a text where Genet is pimping everybody.’ They did not understand that it was exactly the contrary. Facing death, Genet does what he refused to do for seventy years: he lays himself bare, completely, and with a limpidity, a transparency, that I can only regard as mystical.” (Shahid 4)

Comparing the nomadism of Genet’s life to that of the Palestinians, Shahid speaks of the same “itinerary of perpetual displacement” which they had in common. Genet spoke (in his report on the Chatila massacre entitled “Four hours in Chatila”) of his always staying ready to move—his “position of sudden departure,” which is also the position of the refugee, the displaced person. Genet is, says Shahid (4), weaving his life, as he has woven the book, stitching together “[t]he images of weaving, net, and spider web that recur so frequently in Un Captif amoureux disclose the unique way Genet had of inhabiting the world.” (Shahid 4)

Autobiographical elements, then, weave in and out of this mesmerizing account of Genet’s perspective on the Palestinian revolution like a delicate motif in a Palestinian embroidery or a traditional Turkish kilim.

Ahdaf Soueif recounts from that 1982 experience in Beirut his reaction when, still in shock from what he had seen, he was dragged by Lebanese Phalangist soldiers before their officer: “‘Have you just been there?’ (pointing to Chatila) ‘Yes.’—’And did you see?’—’Yes.’—’Are you going to write about it?’–’ Yes’” (x; emphasis added). And that “yes” is a crucial element of autobiography: the poet remembering the commitment made in the face of great danger, his commitment to write the Palestinian story.

Some history will be indispensable for readers unfamiliar with the Palestinian tragedy. In 1948 Israel was formed by driving out the Palestinians from the coastal plane by means of terrorist attacks by three different Jewish groups—the Stern Gang, the Irgun and Lehi, a disaster known as the Nakbah. Many villages were totally emptied by massacres, some now well documented like Deir Yassein, others have come to light only recently. In June 1967, in the second major stage of ethnic cleansing, the rest of Palestine to the Jordan River was conquered by Israel with the collusion of the US whose cryptographers helped to destroy the Egyptian Air Force. Napalm was used against civilian families fleeing Jerusalem on foot or by bus, and napalm was used to drive 25,000 refugees from 1948 out of the huge refugee camp at Jericho and across the Jordan River into Transjordan. This is documented by Arthur C. Forrest in his book The Unholy Land (15-18). At the time of Black September, 1971, the Palestinians were only four years away from the Catastrophe of 1967, and only a single generation—a mere 23 years—away from the original Nakbah of 1948. Many of the young fedayeen encountered by Jean Genet in Jordan would have been children carried across the Jordan River by frantic parents. When the Palestinian organizations armed themselves hoping to re-take their homeland, King Hussein began to feel threatened, and he received a green light (as well as money and weapons from the US) to crush their movement (Genet 43).

The story Genet tells is so fascinating that one forgets to read critically. Yet, to look for the elements of autobiography in Prisoner of Love, it is necessary to look beyond his keen insights into the Palestinian revolution—that ephemeral and in his eyes foredoomed though brilliant performance—and in particular to notice the stress Genet lays on his experience of finding a mother. To place this theme in its proper perspective, let us first turn to the conclusion of the book where Genet is “taking stock.” He reflects on the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, asking himself whether they had been a turning point (429). “But while the act of writing came later, after a period of incubation, nevertheless in a moment like that or those when a single cell departs from its usual metabolism and the original link is created of a future, unsuspected cancer, or of a piece of lace, so I decided to write this book” (429).

Earlier in the book he describes the process of remembering that writing the book required:

I remember like an owl. Memories come back in “bursts of images.” Writing this book, I see my own image far, far away, dwarf size, and more and more difficult to recognize with age. This isn’t a complaint. I’m just trying to convey the idea of age and of the form poetry takes when one is old: I grow smaller and smaller in my own eyes and see the horizon speeding towards me, the line into which I shall merge, behind which I shall vanish, from which I shall never return. (134)

At times in Prisoner of Love, Genet imagines his life as having become fused with that of his subjects:

But I must stress that it’s my eyes that saw what I thought I was describing, and my ears that heard it. The form I adopted from the beginning for this account was never designed to tell the reader what the Palestinian revolution was really like.[. . .] What I recount may well be what I experienced but it was different in that the disparateness of my own existence had merged into the continuity of Palestinian life, though still leaving me with traces, glimpses of, sometimes severances from, my former life.[. . .] Sometimes I wonder whether I didn’t live that life especially so that I might arrange its episodes in the same seeming disorder as the images in a dream. (354-355; emphasis added)

Writing the book seemed to Genet to involve a sorting process during which Europe had “become terra incognita” (428). He records having felt as though anything not to do with the book came to seem so far away as to be invisible. There was the Palestinian people, my search for Hamza and his mother, my trips to the East especially to Jordan, and my book. But France, Europe, all the West, no longer existed. [. . .] By the middle of 1983 I was free enough to start writing my souvenirs, which were meant to be read as reporting” (429).

I now quote the rest of the final page of the book—the retrospective page in which he sums up for himself what the book has been about:

Any reality is bound to be outside me, existing in and for itself. The Palestinian revolution lives and will live only of itself. A Palestinian family, made up essentially of mother and son, were among the first people I met in Irbid. But it was somewhere else that I really found them.

Perhaps inside myself. The pair made up by mother and son is to be found in France and everywhere else. Was it a light of my own that I threw on them, so that instead of being strangers, whom I was observing they became a couple of my own creation? An image of my own that my penchant for day-dreaming had projected on to two Palestinians, mother and son, adrift in the midst of a battle in Jordan?

All I’ve said and written happened. But why is it that this couple is the only really profound memory I have of the Palestinian revolution?

I did the best I could to understand how different this revolution was from others, and in a way I did understand it. But what will remain with me is the little house in Irbid where I slept for one night, and fourteen years during which I tried to find out if that night ever happened.

This last page of my book is transparent. (430; emphasis added)

In a curious way, after all his emphasis on the importance of the “image,” the Palestinian revolution came to be epitomized for Genet in this frieze, this archetype, so deeply personal that he felt he might have found it in himself and then projected it out into the world. Having looked at the importance Genet gives to this connection with a Palestinian mother and son in his final summing up, I will now try to trace it through the book.

The finding of the lost mother is foreshadowed early in the book when he describes an event that took place when he was in Lebanon, where, like Michael Ondaatje’s Kim in The English Patient, Genet witnessed a procession of fishermen carrying a picture of Our Lady of the Sea. This image he at first identifies as the Virgin Mary but learns that it actually belongs to an older pagan tradition, a woman on a sea-blue background whose head was surrounded by the stars in Ursa Minor standing on a crescent which represented Islam. But a Benedictine priest tells him, “the lady in the picture was neither virginal nor Christian but belonged to the pre-Islamic ‘Peoples of the Sea.’ Her origins were pagan, and she’d been worshipped by sailors for thousands of years. In the dimmest of nights she infallibly showed them the North, and because of her the worst-rigged ship was sure to reach harbour safe and sound (11).

Sleeping under the stars that night at Ajloun, Genet falls asleep watching the constellations and marveling that in a Muslim country “where, as I still believed, woman was something remote” (12), he was able to conjure up a procession of men who had captured the image of a beautiful lady, a lady who represented the Pole Star, eternally fixed immeasurable distances away and who belonged “like every woman” to a different constellation. That night he has an almost mystical experience of feeling soothed by maternal arms: “Though I was lying still in my blankets as I looked up into the sky, following the light, I felt myself swept into a maelstrom, swirled around and yet soothed by strong but gentle arms. A little way off, through the darkness, I could hear the Jordan flowing. I was freezing cold” (12; emphasis added),

Several times throughout the story, it is clear that Genet is aware of the Jordan as the locus of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. Yet for Genet, the encounter with the Palestinians is prefaced by a sloughing off of the Judeo-Christian morality which he feels has killed him. This experience is dramatized by an account of flying over the North Pole, hearing the word ‘Sayonara’ from a Japanese airlines hostess, an experience intimately connected with his decision to write this book: “The image I want to record here came to me in a crowd of others which gradually yielded to it in vividness, force and persuasiveness as my decision to write became clear and concentrated on that image alone—the image of the night at the Pole” (51; emphasis added).

Genet uses “image” here in much the same way Ezra Pound used it to indicate an intense insight, a kind of epiphany, the name it took in James Joyce’s modernist style. Genet describes an experience on a flight over the North Pole in 1967 of being cleansed of a “thick black layer of Judeo-Christian morality” against which he had fought so long that his “struggle had become grotesque” (52). The vivid sensation of “clean-up” seems to have been precipitated by hearing a feminine voice pronouncing the Japanese word ‘Sayonara’ (pronounced like ‘Sayonala’).The author describes feeling cleansed, at peace, and celebrates by going to the toilet to get rid of a tape-worm “three thousand years long” (53). His “wretched body” (wretched because of the “long degrading siege it had had to withstand from Judeo-Christian ethics”) is being cleansed (52). Perhaps this represents the feeling of someone gay suddenly finding himself in an ambience in which his sexuality is no longer regarded as deviant, dirty, and perverse. A comparable feeling of joyful relief is described later when Genet discusses the assumption of feminine costume by a transvestite male as a liberating experience, a phenomenon discussed several times in this book (see for example pp. 62 and 173-174).

The archetypal family of which Genet speaks in the final page of his book is composed of a young fedayee called Hamza and his mother. Though Genet searches for a way to transpose the Christian iconography into something more Islamic, oddly he never transposes the Pietà, the image of the mother Mary holding her dead son Jesus on her lap after he is taken down from the cross, into the image of Hagar and Ishmael, as they are sometimes pictured under the palm tree in the desert. Perhaps Genet was unaware of any corresponding graphic representation of Hagar holding a dead Ishmael. Some such Islamic image seems to be a cultural icon for which he is searching. Before he has even recounted meeting Hamza, Genet mentions Hamza’s mother as though in passing: “The various scenes in which Hamza’s mother appears are in a way flat. They ooze love and friendship and pity, but how can one simultaneously express all the contradictory emanations issuing from the witnesses?” (32-33). Thus he alludes to the centrality of this meeting several times in the earlier pages, though he reserves its complete exposition for the almost exact center of the text which is also the dramatic climax, since it is both the moment just before his departure from Jordan and the moment immediately before the crushing of the Palestinians in what became known as Black September.

Looking back, Genet realizes that he is interpreting his encounter with Hamza and his mother within the iconography of acts of Christian liturgy. For example, out of the blue, after describing the Phalange and their almost obscene kissing of the gold cross on a young woman’s breast, Genet moves to Franco’s Spain at Pentecost where he attends a Mass part of which involves a procession of all the celebrants and the faithful out into the wheat fields, the singing of Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Creator Spirit) and the blessing of the fields. Genet records a kind of epiphany in which the old pagan animism seems to emerge from the midst of this Catholic ceremony. But he introduces this scene (in which “for me alone, a wonderful thing happened”) by saying: “After having looked on with some emotion—the significance of which, before my meeting with Hamza and his mother, will appear later—as the black Virgin proffered her child (as it might have been some hoodlum showing a black phallus), I sat down on a bench” (40; emphasis added).

The definitive moment when he actually meets Hamza and his mother occurs just before the culmination of Black September. Because one of the Palestinian leaders decides it is too dangerous for him to stay with the fedayeen, they arrange to get Genet to the Syrian border at Deraa. This plan requires that he stay in the Irbid refugee camp that night to take a taxi in the morning. One of the fedayeen is asked if Genet can stay in his house—this turns out to be Hamza.

 

He was twenty, with black hair, a keffiyeh, and just a nascent moustache. He was pale—sallow, rather—despite his tan and the dust.

“Has your mother got a room free?”

“Mine.”

“Tonight?”

“Tonight I’m fighting. He can have my bed.”

“Take him there, then. And God protect him—he’s a friend.” (179)

 

It is about noon, in Ramadan in October 1971, with the noise of artillery coming closer, and as they enter the refugee camp, people greet them, some looking curiously at this white-haired foreigner.

In a move typical of the discontinuity of this narration, Genet interrupts his visit to Hamza’s house to narrate the murder of three important Palestinian leaders in Beirut on April 9-10, 1973: Kamal Nasir, Kamal Udwan, and Muhammad Yusif al-Najjar were gunned down in their apartments in Beirut by an Israeli death squad posing as drunken gay Arab men. This leads Genet to speculate about whether, had his mother been Jewish, he might have been among those “special forces.” “Instead of having me baptized, the orphanage, even though it didn‘t know whether my mother was Jewish, might have had me [circumcised]” (184). Once again we are reminded that Genet had been abandoned shortly after birth, leaving him searching, perhaps unconsciously, for a mother.

When they enter the small courtyard of Hamza’s home, they find his mother wearing a Kalashnikov like her son’s slung over her shoulder. Her smile suggests to Genet “the faint echo and only visible sign of a great peal of laughter filling her whole being” (187). When Hamza tells her that Genet doesn’t believe in God, she says, “Well, if he doesn’t believe in God I’d better give him something to eat.” The family had fled from Haifa after it was bombed in 1948. She prepares a tray of food the sharing of which takes on retrospectively an almost sacramental quality:

Two plates heaped with pancakes, together with a few lettuce leaves, some quartered tomatoes, four sardines and, I think, three hardboiled eggs.

They ate them, Hamza and the godless Christian, at about three in the afternoon in the month of Ramadan, when the sun had scarcely started to sink in the sky.

I can still see the sky-blue of the little table and its black and yellow flowers, just as I can the details of everything else my eyes and those of the fedayeen once rested on: rocks, trees, fields, the fabric of tents from close to or far away, fir trees, still water, running water, water dark and stagnant. From the twinge of melancholy I feel if it ever leaves me, I know that this emotion will never cease to exist. Even if I myself am shot dead it will still go on, felt by someone there, and after him by another, and so on. [. . .]

Hamza and his mother would never see Haifa again. (189)

Here Genet writes without irony or sarcasm: this experience, as I have pointed out, seems to have taken on an iconic reality for him as through it, he gains a kind of immortality:

Hamza and I were in his mother’s house. That seems to suggest that his mother was the head of the family. But having seen her with her son, and remembering the looks they constantly exchanged, I can guess now what their then imperceptible communications really meant. She was a widow, but very strong; a mother armed exactly like her son, and in fact the head of the family. But every microsecond she smilingly delegated her powers to Hamza. And he, while taking orders from Fatah, left her in command and was secretly guided by her. (191)

For Genet, this acceptance into the family is like the initiation into a mystery. He continues: “Remember the Black Virgin of Montserrat, showing her son as greater than herself, as taking precedence of her so that she might exist, and of the child so that he might live forever” (191). Immediately after this reference to the Black Virgin of Montserrat, Genet tells of helping to load the guns of Hamza and his brother-in-law: he speaks of taking part in “the mysteries of the Resistance.” His meditation on these “mysteries” shows clearly his Catholic theological training: “The fact that the Virgin Mary is called the Mother of God makes you wonder, since the chronological order is the same for parent-hood human and divine, by what prodigy or by what mathematics the mother came after her Son but preceded her own Father. The order becomes less mysterious when you think of Hamza” (192).

Genet tells of lying fully dressed on Hamza’s bed, the shelling deafening and coming closer, when two little raps at the door signal Hamza’s mother.

I could see everything. The mother had just come in. Was she taken in by my pretense? Had she come out of the now ear-splitting darkness, or out of the icy night I carry about with me everywhere? [. . . ] Without making a sound she went out and shut the door. The starry sky was gone, I could open my eyes. On the tray were a cup of Turkish coffee and a glass of water. I drank them, shut my eyes and waited [. . .] Another two little taps at the door [. . .] In the light of the stars and the waning moon the same long shadow appeared, as familiar now as if it had come into my room at the same time every night of my life before I went to sleep. Or rather so familiar now that it was inside rather than outside me, coming into me with a cup of Turkish coffee every night since I was born. Through my lashes I saw her move the little table silently back to its place and, still with the assurance of someone born blind, pick up the tray and go out, closing the door.

I realized that the mother came every night with a cup of coffee and a glass of water for Hamza. Without a sound, except for the four little taps at the door, and in the distance, as in a picture by Detaille, gunfire against a background of stars.

Because he was fighting that night, I’d taken the son’s place and perhaps played his part in his room and his bed. For one night and for the duration of one simple but oft-repeated act, a man older than she was herself became the mother’s son. For “before she was made, I was.” Though younger than I, during that familiar act, she was my mother as well as Hamza’s. It was in my own personal and portable darkness that the door of my room opened and closed. I fell asleep. (193; emphasis added)

Hamza returns at dawn covered in dust and, pleased with his night’s work, falls almost immediately to sleep. When Genet goes into the mother’s room to say goodbye, she interrupts her bread baking to make him tea. He learns that the Syrian frontier is open, and around eleven Hamza puts him in a taxi and they say goodbye. He counts up the time they were together and figures it is just eleven hours (196). As the taxi takes him from Jordan through the Deraa crossing into Syria, though he is surrounded by the chaos of the war-torn country he is leaving behind and the dangers of the country destabilized by a military coup, he is preoccupied by thoughts of Hamza:

Reflecting on the images of the Mother and Son in world art, the Pietás, the mater dolorosa, the Black Virgin of Montserrat, etc., Genet realizes that the theme is archetypal, “some other image farther back in time and in some place other than Europe, Judea or Palestine [ . . .] India [. . .]or perhaps in every man” (202-03). And the reason why he meditates in such depth, the reason why he is compelled to return in 1984, is surely summed up in those words describing the night he slept in Hamza’s bed and Hamza’s mother served to him the coffee and water she habitually served to Hamza: “Though younger than I, during that familiar act, she was my mother as well as Hamza’s” (193).

By some strange alchemy, in that Palestinian refugee camp, just as the horrors of Black September were coming to their tragic end, the quest of Jean Genet for his own lost mother finds a paradoxical resolution. For some mysterious reason, he has come to feel that “an invisible scarf” binds him together with Hamza and his mother (68). And this discovery forms the heart of our investigation into the autobiographical elements in Genet’s last book. It was a book which, after witnessing the horrors of the massacre in Chatila Camp in Beirut in 1982, he felt compelled to write. So determined was he to finish it that he cut back on pain-killers in order to retain the lucidity of mind necessary for the task. He had seen the mutilated bodies of women in Chatila, women who had been tortured and then crucified, women whose fingers had been cut off for their rings. And he knew that these atrocities had been arranged and supervised by what he calls, more in sorrow than in anger, “the darkest of all people” (166).

Resistance had to be fought, as he learned from the Palestinian poet, Khaled Abu Khaled, even if there was no hope of winning against “the darkest of all people” because they had the backing of the United States (179). The Palestinian people, Genet says, found their reality suddenly threatened because they had been, without knowing it, characters in someone else’s dream “though they still didn’t foresee the rude awakening that would take away both their lives and their living” (321). In spite of—or perhaps because of—his premonition that the Palestinian struggle was doomed, Genet found a great peace and serenity, “a precious harvest of time” (118) under the trees in their camps at Ajloun when they played and sang (drumming on empty coffins) music that “let me hear a song that has always been shut up silent within me” (42). Like the music that he found already shut up inside himself, Genet also found the answer to his own quest: on the final page of the book in the passage already quoted above, he says: “A Palestinian family, made up essentially of mother and son, were among the first people I met in Irbid. But it was somewhere else that I really found them. Perhaps inside myself” (430; emphasis added).

A great poet, a slum child who never knew his own mother, Jean Genet felt himself included in the loving embrace of a mother and son engaged stoically in what appeared to him a losing battle one violent night at the end of Black September. This embrace inspired in the form of Prisoner of Love the most eloquent of elegies.

I think that this book verifies Kate Millett’s glowing appraisal of Genet’s contribution to the analysis of sexual malaise. In Sexual Politics, Millett says: “[Genet] appears to be the only living male writer of first-class literary gifts to have transcended the sexual myths of our era. His critique of the hetero-sexual politic points the way toward a true sexual revolution, a path which must be explored if any radical social change is to come about” (22). Perhaps what impressed Genet so much was the absolute equality between mother and son which allowed them to change roles without missing a beat. The woman silently serving coffee to her guest/son is the same woman who carries the Kalashnikov just like her son’s. Perhaps it is this egalitarianism which accounts for his later fantasies of the two in which Genet saw them switch roles, each guarding the other turn about, their nurturing and military roles perfectly shared between them, without any sense of subordination or dominance. In Hamza and his mother, Genet found not only his own mother but an affirmation that the true sexual revolution was at least possible, whatever would happen to the Palestinian revolution, one phase of which ended with Black September.

 

Works Cited

 

Choukri, Mohamed. Jean Genet in Tangier. Trans. Paul Bowles. New York: Ecco, 1974.

Darraj, Faisal. “The Current State of Arab Culture.” Democratic Palestine. June 1989. 25-29.

Forrest, Arthur. The Dispossessed, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Genet, Jean. “Four Hours in Shatila.” Journal of Palestine Studies 12.3 (Spring 1983): 4-5.

—. Our Lady of the Flowers. New York: Grove Atlantic, 1963. Orig. French edition Notre-Dame des Fleurs, published by L’Arbaléte, Lyons, France, 1943. Revised edition published by Libraire Gallimard, Introduction by J.P. Sartre, 1952.

—. Prisoner of Love. Trans. Barbara Bray. Introd. Ahdaf Soueif. New York: New York Review of Books, 2003.

—. Un captif amoureux. Paris: Gallimard, 1986.

Hussey, Andrew. “The Princes of Exile: Choukri and Genet in Tangier.” Voices of Tangier: Conference Proceedings. Ed. Khalid Amine, Andrew Hussey and Barry Tharaud. Tangier: Center for Mediterranean and Maghreb Studies       26-28 January 2006. 151-156.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Brise marine. Paris: Du Parnasse contemporain, 1865. Brise marine annotated by Maureen Jameson. http://www.wings.buffalo.edu/litgloss/mallarme/text.shtml-l/k

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. 1969. London: Virago, 1999.

Shahid, Leila. “Jean Genet and the Position of Sudden Departure.” Autodafe 2, Autumn 2001. 4 Sept. 2006 <http://www.mafhoum.com/press3/92C41.htm&gt;.

Soueif, Ahdaf. “Genet in Palestine.” Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo. Monthly supplement Issue no. 51, July 2003. Books 2.

Soueif, Ahdaf. “Introduction.” Prisoner of Love by Jean Genet. New York: New York Review of Books, 2003. ix-xx.

 

[1] Leila Shahid’s essay, “Jean Genet and the Position of Sudden Departure,” is documented with the following editor’s note: “This text is an excerpt from a long interview conducted by Jérôme Hankins published in Genet à Chatila (Actes Sud, Babel), an adaptation from the production of Quatre heures à Chatila directed by Alain Milianti in 1991 at the Volcan du Havre.”

 

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